Before Covid-19 Death, Chronically Ill Woman Struggled to Get Desired Care

5 min read
The entrance for Covid-19 testing at Phnom Penh’s Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, during its off-hours on February 28, 2021. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

A woman in poor health had difficulty getting the care her family wanted in Phnom Penh over the weekend and later died with Covid-19 on Monday in a Kampong Chhnang hospital, only for her body to be turned away once again from a pagoda after villagers protested her cremation.

Taing Bun Toth, chief of Kampong Chhnang’s Chrey Bakk commune, said that about 30 villagers prevented authorities from burning a body at Chrey Bakk village’s Wat Chrey Bakk on May 3.

He said that the woman who died was from a different district, but he and the Kampong Chhnang city governor checked the crematorium in Rolea Ba’ier district and met with monks in order to cremate the body. Villagers approached them afterward with concerns, he said.

“[The villagers] said that this pagoda is located near their village and they often come to the pagoda on and off, so they were afraid the cremation would cause smoke. … In short, they were afraid that it would spread the [virus], and even though the district governor tried to explain it to them, they did not accept it, and in the end the authorities decided not to bring the body to cremate in the pagoda.”

Bun Toth was not sure how the villagers found out, but the information could have leaked, he said. “We see people coming and gathering, and it is difficult to keep [things] confidential.”

In the days before her death, the 59-year-old Cambodian woman, who suffers from chronic conditions, had difficulty getting the treatment her family wanted, according to Paong Bun Hor, the 29-year-old son of So Heang.

Heang, 59, had lived in Phnom Penh’s Toul Sangke commune, in Russei Keo district, with her two children, a 27-year-old daughter and Bun Hor. They had come from Kampong Chhnang’s Kampong Leng district to find work.

She had suffered anemia and kidney issues for a long time and had received blood transfusions and some medicine from Calmette Hospital, Bun Hor said. But she had stopped for the past three months in order to save money, he said. Heang started to have trouble eating and her hands turned white, he said.

About three days before her death, she developed a fever, shortness of breath, sore throat and had trouble eating, so after using up all the medicine the family still had from private clinics, Bun Hor said he took Heang to Calmette Hospital on Saturday night.

But the hospital was not admitting anyone with a fever unless they had a certificate saying they didn’t have Covid-19, he said.

Bun Hor said that he brought his mother to a Phnom Penh private clinic, where they offered to give his mother a Covid-19 test for $140. However, he balked at the price. The son also considered taking Heang to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, but by the time he reached the entrance, he decided against taking her inside because he wanted her other issues treated first before checking for Covid-19 and potentially getting quarantined and not receiving the desired treatment. A neighbor had also told him about poor care there, he said.

“I was afraid they would quarantine my mother and … I was not sure that they would take care of my mother … so we decided to take her to Kampong Chhnang,” he said, adding that Heang had previously received treatment at the provincial referral hospital.

Bun Hor said he hired a tuk-tuk to drive him and his mother to the Kampong Chhnang referral hospital, arriving at about noon on May 2, and upon arriving he demanded the doctor give his mother a blood transfusion, but he said they refused.

“We know that my mother needs the blood and when they would not change the blood, her condition started to get worse and worse,” he said, adding that his mother had a very high fever, chills and a severe headache.

The Kampong Chhnang referral hospital gave her and Bun Hor a rapid Covid-19 test, and both tested positive, he said. None of the cases reported by the Health Ministry on Monday and Tuesday were found in Kampong Chhnang province, and no reported deaths match Heang’s details. However, Bun Toth, the commune chief, also said Heang tested positive for Covid-19 on Sunday and died on Monday. Ou Kim Thy, commune chief of Trangil commune, where the family was from, also confirmed the details, adding that if they had visited their village first before going to the hospital, the area would have needed to be locked down.

The doctor then gave her two kinds of medicine, and she started to shake, Bun Hor said. He asked what the doctor gave her, and the doctor would only respond that it was to make her relax, he said.

“I really questioned what kind of medicine that can make her shake like this,” Bun Hor said.

Heang died at about 2:45 a.m. on Monday, Bun Hor said.

Kampong Chhnang health department director Prak Von could not be reached for comment.

The son said that he and his sister did not believe that their mother had Covid-19 as she had had similar symptoms in the past.

“At that time if the doctor changed her blood, I strongly believe that my mother would not have died,” he said.

Now under quarantine himself at the Kampong Chhnang referral hospital as a Covid-19 patient, Bun Hor said he was concerned by mounting expenses.

He said he had to pay “tea money” to ensure that the people taking away his mother’s body would cremate it and bring Heang’s ashes to the family.

“We needed to pay them some money as a gift,” he said. He had not been able to join them to make sure they fulfilled the task, but they had brought him her ashes, he said.

In addition to owing rent at his Phnom Penh home, a microfinance collector had also called, Bun Hor said. When Bun Hor explained that he’s now in quarantine with Covid-19, the private debt collector asked for proof of his quarantine. Bun Hor said the collector delayed his payment, but will add interest on top of his usual payments for the delay.

“After I leave my quarantine I have to go pay for the two months for the rental house even though I do not stay there much,” he said. “They do not care about our condition.”

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